09. The NLHL and Conscription

Submitted by Steven. on December 30, 2012

Conscription was introduced in January 1916. Initially it applied to single men only but its scope was rapidly expanded. There had been widespread opposition to its introduction; even the TUC had voted overwhelmingly against, and some of the most ardent supporters of the recruiting campaign opposed it. When the Bill was passed, however, only one minister (Sir John Simon, a Liberal!) resigned, the Labour Ministers stayed put, and the TUC tamely accepted the decision. Conscription was a very serious matter for the NLHL, not simply in terms of its effects on individual members, but also on the consequences for the League and the anti-War movement as a whole, since a large proportion of activists and speakers were men of military age. Henry Sara, R. M. Fox, and a number of other members of the League1 Had to go before Conscientious Objectors' Tribunals almost immediately; Fox, an engineer, and some of the others could have claimed exemption but refused to do so. Predictably, they were refused CO status, but were given six weeks' grace before they were liable for arrest. Their reactions were described by Fox:

I had a glorious six weeks. I said everything I wanted to say about the War, irrespective of DORA. Moving a resolution at the weekly park meeting against the prohibition of our literature sales, I asked everyone to buy a paper from me to reinforce their protest. I sold hundreds from the platform handing them out as fast as I could. I felt that sense of freedom of the man who knows he is going to be hanged, and so doesn't care for threats from any quarter.2

But it wasn't all beer and skittles. The early COs had a very rough time. Henry Sara, for example, was arrested on April 13th, 1916. He was badly beaten, forced into uniform, and beaten again for refusing to obey orders, before being transferred to a civilian prison where he was kept until well into 1919. Many League members in prison took the 'absolutist' position in that they refused any alternative forms of service or any collaboration with the authorities. Consequently, they had a pretty rough time - bread and water, solitary confinement, and sometimes over three years in prison were their lot.

In some cases the authorities went even further in their attempts to intimidate COs. In June 1916, the army shipped 34 COs to the War zone in France, where they were sentenced to death. After a long pause this was commuted to 10 years' imprisonment; they were eventually released in 1919. The No-Conscription Fellowship functioned efficiently, traced the men en route, and alerted sympathetic MPs who intervened and possibly saved the men's lives. Among this group of COs were five men from Edmonton and one each from Tottenham and St Pancras. One of them, Stewart Beavis from Lower Edmonton, wrote to his parents the day before he was to be sentenced:

Just a line. We have been warned today that we are now within the War zone. The military authorities have absolute power, and disobedience may be followed by very severe penalties, and possibly the death penalty, so I have dropped you a line in case they do not allow me to write after tomorrow. Do not be downhearted; if the worst comes to the worst many have died cheerfully for a worse cause.3

The names of the other North London men sentenced to death also deserve to be remembered; they were Alfred W. Taylor, Wilfred Thomas Frear, E. H. Walker and A. F. Walling from Edmonton, Edward]. Murfin from Tottenham and]. B. Lieffrom St Pancras.

But not all liable members of the League reacted in the same way. Some, as described above, took the absolutist path; others accepted alternative service,4 still others went on the run or avoided service by a variety of subterfuges - it must be remembered that up to the First World War Britain simply did not have the detailed personal records necessary for conscription, so there was ample opportunity to avoid becoming enmeshed in the system. Of this opportunity many availed themselves - while still others, for family or other reasons, bowed to pressure and allowed themselves to be conscripted.

The question of attitudes to conscription is further complicated by the fact that many of those who had been infected by the War hysteria, had, as a result of their experiences, changed their attitude, so there was a growing body of anti-War feeling within the forces themselves, a classic example of the complexity of real social forces. Quite a number of men associated with the League went on the run. Edward Hennem mentions the case of Bill Savage,5 who after he had been arrested and taken to Mill Hill Barracks managed to walk out and vanish, and still spent the rest of the War as an activist in the League. Hennem goes on to describe how the League protected its members:

If we went out in a group to a dance or cinema and there was a police raid for absentees, those who had registration cards gave them to those on the 'run' who then returned them at once to our homes; and we told the police that we had left them at home where they would be if the police checked.6

There was another story going around at the time of two young men, only one of them with exemption documents, who were walking near Kings Cross, when they were approached by police checking papers. Immediately the man with exemption started running with the police in hot pursuit. After dashing through some back doubles and up Caledonian Road he reached the Canal Turn and waited for his pursuers, leaning on a wall with his arms crossed. Meanwhile the man on the 'run' quietly disappeared.

There seemed to be quite a considerable underground helping men on the run. Many older socialists and others who weren't ready to stick their necks out in open opposition to the War were prepared to provide accommodation and sometimes work for 'conscientious evaders'. There was at least one secret dormitory for men on the run at Woodford. The local IWW even seemed to be plugged into an 'underground railway' capable of smuggling men out of the country and to the USA. Charlie Lahr was offered a passage which he was unable to accept, while F. L. Kerran, alias Kerhahn, of Hackney BSP was actually arrested in the USA after esc Hedger aping from the Cornwallis Road internment camp in Holloway. Both Lahr and Kerran were Germans and spent the rest of the War as internees.7

The authorities went to considerable lengths to catch the large numbers of men who were on the run, frequently raiding possible meeting places and setting up large operations to sweep particular areas. In mid-1916, a lion tamer was actually arrested on the stage of the Edmonton Empire.

For those men imprisoned the most important organisation was the No-Conscription Fellowship which had groups in most parts of North London, including one based on the NLHL. The NCF, which consisted entirely of men of military age, provided the essential organisation linking up the majority of those who were prepared to go to prison rather than fight. It built up an efficient intelligence network connecting those in prison with each other and the outside world, and it was able to intervene via sympathetic MPs to counter some of the worst abuses.

The NCF is often seen as purely a pacifist organisation. In fact three out of four of those imprisoned were opposed to the War on political grounds.8 What is more, many of those who went into prison protesting against the War on religious or ethical grounds were converted to radical socialism by the 'hedge universities' and discussion groups which sprung up in most of the prisons and work gangs where COs were gathered.

The NCF also provided a valuable support organisation for the wives and dependents of men in prison. The pressure on these families could be intense. Certainly, some jingos believed in visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generations. Minnie Vandome, nee Baynton, whose father was one of those imprisoned, described what happened to her:

About the time my father was arrested I took the scholarship exam at Detmold School. The Hackney and Kingsland Gazette had made a feature of 'Conscientious Objector arrested in Clapton' on their placards placed outside newsagents. Anyone who read the Gazette knew about Dad. The consequence was that although I was the only pupil to pass the scholarship exam that year from that school, the Headmistress made a determined effort to have the award taken away from me. My mother had to fight for my right to the scholarship and, though I do not know what steps she took, she won, and I duly went to Laura Place Grammar School where the Headmistress and two of the teachers were Quakers and where I was treated with more sympathy than I might have found elsewhere.9

Meanwhile, as the War 'progressed', the armed forces began to be deeply affected by the change in political climate. Many of those who had so blithely volunteered, as well as conscripts and even regulars, began to see the futility of it all, and quite a few servicemen began to participate in, and support as far as they were able, the activities of the NLHL and other anti-War groups.

The growing War-weariness, and the massive troop casualties had an impact on the civilian population too. The habit early in the War of recruiting local battalions, which were then often brigaded together into Divisions with a regional base, meant that when these units had heavy losses - and sometimes they were virtually wiped out - the areas from which they were raised would face mass tragedy overnight. I have heard recollections of times after heavy battle when nearly every other house in some parts of North London had the blinds drawn in mourning.

Unrest began to grow in the forces. This discontent culminated after 1917 in wave upon wave of mutinies, literally hundreds of them, involving hundreds of thousands of service men and women and which went on well after the end of the War.10

It is very difficult, and outside the scope of this text, to document these subterranean currents. After all, those involved were not anxious to draw attention to themselves (this was one occasion when it didn't pay to advertise). However, I have been able to trace some connections between the upheavals in the armed forces and subsequent events. An example is Dennis Jennett. Aged 37 in 1919, Jennett was a shoemaker who lived in Cross Street, Islington. He had actively participated in unrest in the Army which might have explained his relatively early demobilisation. By early 1919 Jennett was heavily involved in the Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers (FDDSS) and in May 1919 he was one of those arrested at a violent demonstration at Constitution Hill. He went on to become one of the most prominent figures in the Islington unemployed movement in the early 1920s. In November-December 1920 he played a leading part in the occupation of the Essex Road library by the unemployed and, following their eviction from there, was a leading light in the very violent mass demonstration in protest (which included an attempt to seize the Town Hall!)11

The Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers was one of the groups which formed the basis of the later unemployed organisations; there was a similar group, the National Union of Ex- Servicemen, which in 1920 had a local branch based on the NLHL's premises, and there was a considerable amount of joint agitation. Individuals with similar backgrounds to Jennett played significant parts in several areas of local radical activity after the War. In particular, the whole unemployed movement in North London seems to have been dominated by an unholy alliance of ex-service militants and ex-anti-War activists.

  • 1 Apart from Fox and Sara, 'absolutist' League members included Victor Beacham, G. H. Hebbs, Teddy Knight, G. Mabbs,]. Mathews, L. Simon,]. G. Stone and Leonard]. Simcox; they all served long sentences and were only released - after a hunger strike- in early 1919.
  • 2 R. M. Fox, op cit, pp. 21&-9.
  • 3 Sylvia Pankhurst, The Home Front, op cit, p. 334.
  • 4 Altogether there were about 16,000 COs, of which 3,300 accepted service in the Non-Combatant Corps, 3,000 did various forms of ambulance work and 4,000 did alternative work. About 6,000 went to prison, of which 3,750 accepted work after serving a term in prison. There were about 1,500 absolutists.
  • 5 Bill Savage, who had been an anarchist and a member of the WSF, went on to become a leading member of the Islington Communist Party. In the 1920s he edited a paper for Kings Cross railwaymen called The Star, while his wife Dora was the secretary of the Islington branch of the National Unemployed Workers' Committee Movement in 1924. In the 1939-45 War, Savage moved to Essex where he edited another paper called the Rural Crusader. He died a few years ago. Other NLHLers who went on the lam included Eric Fox, R. M.'s brother, who like him worked at theJAP engine plant in Tottenham. After serving one term in prison as a CO, Eric Fox decided he didn't want another helping. After the War he became a diplomatic official in the Canary Islands. Another evader was Fred Peet; born in 1900, Peet was the cousin of Harry Young (see note 18, page 92) and before the War had been an active member of the local BSP; with the coming of peace he became secretary of the London Hands Off Russia Com- mittee and a founder member of the Islington CP - he was a member of the Party's Executive in 1921 - but in 1929 he left the CP and joined South Islington Labour Party. He died in the mid 1950s when he was a businessman in the garment trade.
  • 6 Hennem op cit.
  • 7 This network seems to have continued after the War, in this case smuggling revolutionaries to Russia and elsewhere, rather than COs on the run.
  • 8 See for example Conscription Conflict, by Dennis Hayes, 1949, p. 257.
  • 9 Letter to author, from Minnie Vandome, March 1980. Mrs Vandome later became an active member of Hackney ILP. She married Albert Vandome, an engineer who was a member of the BSP before and during the War and a founder member of the CP after it. The friendly Headmistress to whom Minnie Vandome refers was Kate O'Brien Harris, who had been secretary of the Brotherhood Association at the turn of the century (see Chapter 16). Her husband, Theodore Harris, also a Quaker and an active member of the Brotherhood Church, was the manager of Hackney Labour Exchange. After the War he played an active part in finding jobs for returned COs. Incidentally, various elements of the Brotherhood Church movement seemed to have played a very significant part in the informal networks helping men on the run.
  • 10 For a description see Dave Lamb, 'Mutinies 1917-1920', Solidarity', 1979, and Andrew Rothstein, Soldiers' Strikes in 1919, Journeyman, 1985.
  • 11 Another less savoury connection between the unrest in the armed forces, the ex-servicemen's organisations, and the labour movement was John Beckett of Hackney. Beckett, born in 1894, was leader of the local National Union of Ex-Servicemen. When this organisation was dissolved in 1921 he joined - with about 60 other members - the Hackney ILP. He was a Hackney Borough Councillor between 1919 to 1922, the Labour Group of which was then led by Herbert Morrison. In 1924 Beckett became MP for Gateshead and from 1929 until 1931 he was the left-wing MP for Peckham. Beckett left the Labour Party and the ILP with Oswald Mosley and he became a leader of the British Union of Fascists until 1934 when, along with William Joyce ('Lord Haw Haw'), he left the BUF and created the National Socialist League of which he was secretary. Beckett was interned in 1940.
    For an account of the occupation of the Essex Road Library and the assault on the Town Hall see my article 'Direct Action and the Unemployed', op cit.